New murals restore the vibrancy of Ottawa’s Chinatown district
The towering Royal Gateway—a beautiful arch with golden roofs and glazed tiles—welcomes people to Somerset Street, home of Ottawa’s Chinatown district. Visitors frequent the area for delicious restaurants and speciality shops. For local residents and members of various cultural groups, Chinatown provides a cherished sense of familiarity and community.
In 2021, Somerset Street celebrated the addition of new colourful landmarks: two large-scale murals and a series of decorative planters. “These projects will beautify our streets, increase foot traffic and bring potential customers to Chinatown,” says Yukang Li, Executive Director, Somerset Street Chinatown Business Improvement Area, who is grateful for receiving a $92,000-contribution from FedDev Ontario towards the improvements. “But even more importantly, they promote cultural awareness, inclusiveness and racial equality in our society.”
During the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses across Ontario experienced a steep drop in revenue. For Chinatown, the issues were compounded by a rising wave of anti-Asian xenophobia and discrimination. A number of racist incidents impacted the public image of Chinatown as a safe and friendly area for restaurants, stores and services. As part of the Government of Canada’s $23.5-million investment in My Main Street through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) is leading the Community Activator program to support invigorating and important enhancement projects, like Somerset Street’s beautification plan.
The Somerset Street Chinatown Business Improvement Area launched a campaign to revitalize not only the area’s physical streetscape, but also its reputation as an attractive destination for visitors. With additional support from the City of Ottawa, the BIA commissioned local artists Dom Laporte and Dan Metcalfe to create a pair of large-scale murals on the sides of Chinatown businesses. For the next phase of the beautification campaign, the BIA installed new decorative wraps to the concrete planters that line Somerset Street. Both the murals and the planters featured brightly coloured visual elements that captured pedestrian attention, evoked Asian traditions and fostered a sense of community. Business owners greatly appreciated the improvements to the streetscape; as an unexpected bonus, incidents of vandalism and graffiti decreased.
Enthusiasm for the beautification campaign inspired the BIA to expand its plans into 2022 to include a youth artwork competition. The city-wide contest invited students to submit designs for Chinatown’s concrete planters; as an artistic theme, the designs will incorporate Indigenous, Asian and multicultural heritages that contribute to Canada’s rich spirit of diversity. The competition aims to promote racial equality, cultural inclusivity and intergenerational connectedness.
Contest organizers have reported great excitement from educators, schools and young artists—more than 300 students submitted designs. A jury will select approximately 50 outstanding pieces, which will then be painted and printed on the concrete planters. Each design will include a QR code that links to a website with information about the artist, their creative process, examples of cultural imagery and connections to local businesses. Plus, the BIA will continue planting and maintaining attractive flowers in the planters.
The beautification campaign cultivated a greater sense of community. Throughout the My Main Street-supported projects, the BIA formed new relationships with vendors, economic development officers, government departments, social media influencers, artists and schools, as well as local media outlets that helped promote the Chinatown district as a thriving neighbourhood.
Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic created difficult conditions for small businesses. The Somerset Street Chinatown Business Improvement Area demonstrated their entrepreneurial resiliency with a beautification campaign that helped re-establish Ottawa Chinatown as an attractive destination for businesses, restaurants and tourism. Early feedback indicates the projects boosted morale among local businesses and generated excitement within the area.
With new murals, decorative planters and increased youth engagement, the beautification campaign brightened the streetscape and revitalized Chinatown’s vibrant reputation.